Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1879 Letter

Charles H. Hitchcock

Delivered: June 14, 1929

Only a few yesterdays ago — as lately in fact as the early autumn of 1875, a band of young men climbed College Hill for the first time. This band at once took form and shape as the now famous Class of Seventy-Nine. It was a numerous class in its day — of over 40 members. This host of young warriors (like others both before and since) came to Hamilton’s storied halls to gird on their armor and sharpen up their swords and spears for the conflict that impends every young life.

Now after half a century we are back — some of us. It seems only a little while, particularly when we look around here on the campus. As we approach from the front the three old “Colleges,” South, Middle and North still stand with little change in outward aspect. In the center stands as of yore the Chapel without change — a building as substantial as three-foot stone walls can make it; yet with such absolute symmetry of line and proportion that it rests as beautifully light upon the campus as a water lily on the bosom of a mountain tarn. The Chapel bell still wakes the echoes with its pure silvery tones. But we miss the old wooden observatory at the north from which Dr. Peters, “Old Twinkle,” used to sweep the starry heavens for his constantly increasing tale of asteroids.

Here resemblances cease. In the rear was the low stone building (now remodeled), which housed the conchological and geological collections, but the old frame barn-like gymnasium is gone, and the frame chemical laboratory and classroom are things of the past. The new and beautiful Commons Hall, the library, Carnegie Hall and the Hall of Science were in our day far in a future as yet undreamed of.

I believe the three dormitory buildings I have mentioned were originally of uniform construction. Each of the four floors, except the first floor, contained eight suites of rooms, each suite to house two students. The two central suites on the first floor, west side, were thrown together and made into a recitation room. Each student’s suite consisted of a large study, a small bedroom, and an ample coal and storeroom. This last had been used for the storage of firewood, in the days not then so far past, when the rooms were warmed by wood fires in the fireplaces, closed by boards in our day. Our heat was from the coal stoves we furnished and fueled ourselves.

Baths there were none; plumbing there was none. Toilets, none (except for two long, low, stalled brick buildings which we would fain forget). If you wanted water for drinking or washing, you could help yourself from the College well or the cisterns in rear, or subsidize old Peter Blake to keep you supplied.

In the absence of a Commons Hall and fraternity houses, we obtained our table board variously. Dan Kelley’s, next to Professor Root’s, was the nearest; the others were down the hill — for the most part well down. We were probably undergoing some hardships; but we didn’t know it, and what we didn’t know didn’t hurt us.

The ordinary day with us was rather monotonous. Rise at 7 to 7:30, breakfast, chapel and 9 o’clock recitation, followed by another at 11; dinner at 12:30, a recitation at 4. In the evening after supper we usually went down to the Post Office, and perhaps to roll a game of billiards at the hotel. Then evening study (or a game of whist), “and so to bed” at such time as work or amusement failed. A study bell was rung at 8 p.m. and a retiring bell at 10; but I never knew of anyone paying any attention to either.

In going down to the village in winter we usually coasted on the snow, and that on the sidewalk for the most part. You will see that it would be better on the whole to collide with a foot passenger than with a team of horses and a sleigh. This was probably a somewhat dangerous practice. Accidents sometimes happened. I tried to push a tree out of the way with my foot early in my experience as a freshman. I did not succeed. In fact the tree is there yet. A fractured bone was the result. No more serious accident occurred during my four years. There was no infirmary or hospital in which accident or sickness might be treated, and thus no inducement to either illness or injury.

During the season there were no athletics. We played ball sometimes with neighboring nines, sometimes with our neighbor Colgate, and more rarely with Union College. Track athletics were undefined and unorganized, football had not been invented, basketball was unknown, and tennis had not come into vogue. Golf was known remotely as a game for crazy Scotchmen and had not yet been introduced into the United States.

Yet with all this lack of any physical outlet for our energies, there were no serious consequences. We probably were guilty from time to time of wanton mischief to an extent beyond what is now considered good form; but the damage to persons or property was negligible. I recall an instance.

Some time during junior year, it was announced that a good friend of the College had donated a tower clock for the Chapel. A few days after this a small party of my acquaintance happened to be down in the village rather late one evening. The sheet-iron watch that hung up conspicuously on Marsh’s the Jeweller’s corner attracted attention. It was the work of a moment to take it down. In the morning of a bright spring day as the faculty and students assembled for morning chapel, the tin watch appeared secured by straps on the front dial space in the Chapel tower. The word was passed, “the new Chapel clock has come; there it is.” It may be that the humor of the prank was a little obscure, but both the students and faculty seemed to appreciate it — dear old Professor North most of all. Mr. Marsh, the jeweler, was I believe the only one who saw no fun in the incident. Who did it? No one ever knew. I might have my suspicious, but if I named any names it might do someone an injustice. Anyway the statute of limitations has run a long time, and to tell now would serve no useful purpose.

But let no one think that we were either vicious or dissipated. It is not true that the students kept liquor in their rooms — that is not many of them, and then not for long. Most of us would have admitted without question that we were there to study, and not for athletics or to form social connections. With a reasonable amount of sport and amusement, we really did a good amount of faithful work.

The members of the faculty were not numerous or very well paid. With few exceptions they were men past middle life or wide culture and thorough scholarship. They were none of them specialists in the narrow sense. Whatever the subject, the knowledge we gained of it was catholic; and we learned with the subject, something of its relation to the whole field of knowledge.

I believe each one of us came from time to time under the instruction of every member of the faculty. Our classes, averaging about 30, were not large enough to require division at recitations. This fact gave us advantages, which are now afforded at few if any of the colleges of the present day. It is true that each professor had his department, but the instruction he gave was not always confined to it. Thus, Professor Edward North had the department of Greek; but we studied French and the Greek testament with Dr. Mears, and the Iliad and German with Professor Brandt.

Professor Oren Root, of course, taught us our mathematics; but with Professor Huntington we finished algebra and geometry; then came trigonometry, analytical geometry and differential and integral calculus with Professor Root. None of these subjects was optional. We all had to struggle with these, but with quite varying success. I remember Professor Root once said: “There is a type of mind, not by any means an inferior one, which seems incapable of understanding higher mathematics.” I had cause to realize this in my own case — I mean in part of course. How I ever passed the calculus exams I never knew. The more I think of it, the more the mystery grows upon me.

Professor Huntington taught us physics and assisted in mathematics. I remember a significant incident in connection with him. At that time, 1878, the telephone had just been invented but had not come at all into use. It was the wonder of the day, and Professor Huntington was profoundly interested. He constructed a telephone line between his house and Doctor Mears’, and invited his class one evening to attend a demonstration. All of us in turn listened through the instrument to Dr. Mears’ voice perhaps 100 yards away. It was marvelous! At the conclusion Doctor Huntington remarked: “Young gentlemen, you have seen one of the wonders of modern science. Scientifically it is most interesting, but I doubt very much if any of us live long enough to see the telephone of much practical or commercial importance.” Truly the world of science has advanced with marvelous strides since that day. Prophets that would impose limits on its possible attainment are bold indeed! The world does move — but whither?

Professor Frink taught us logic and rhetoric and supervised our declamation, oratory, debating and composition. He revived and carried to a high point the traditions established years before by Professor Mandeville. In those days there was an intercollegiate association with contests and prizes for oratory, composition and scholarship in the various departments. Under Professor Frink’s instruction, the first prize for oratory — the first offered — was won by Julien M. Elliot of 1876, over representatives from some dozen leading institutions. This was no accident. In the following year Frank F. Laird won the same distinction.

But the Inter-collegiate Association was moribund, and shortly ceased to be, but not however, before the College had won another first honor. James Alton Davis of 1878 won the first prize in mathematics that year. That he should have won from mere “colleges” was perhaps not particularly notable; but it was worthy of remark that a young man from a mere college run on the old traditional lines should win from representatives of technical schools and institutions specializing in mathematical subjects. We did not specialize, but the Root of the matter was with us.

But of the members of the faculty of those days, all of whom I knew and respected, most of whom I came to count my friends, none left so deep an impress or lasting memory of affection as Professor Edward North. With him Greek was no mere dead language, buried under pages of paradigms and grammatical technicalities. His was the soul of a poet. Under him it became a living tongue, replete with beauty and power. With him it was more than a pleasure; it was keen delight to make familiar acquaintance with the varied and exhaustless scenes and incidents of Homer; the matchless splendors of Aeschylus and Sophokles; to go up into the great abysses with Socrates and Plato. With him and through him many of us gained some faint vision of the old eternal beauties and verities; gleams of that light that “never was on sea or land,” which now and again comes to us to make our modern efficiency and progress seem cheap and tawdry, and unworthy of supreme endeavor.

Now at the end of our first 50 years, we gather, the few of us that remain, once more within our alma mater. Now we are men with a brilliant future — behind us!

Here is the Class of 1929 about to take the plunge into the cold, cold world that awaits all reverend seniors. As in our case their fond fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters are here numerous and conspicuous. How the girls add to a commencement season!

To our young friends just starting out we have a word of encouragement. Remember that the first 50 years are the hardest. So cheer up. The worst is yet to come.

As to our own experiences in the battle of life we might say with the Herald in the Agamemnon:

As for what happened during the weary years,
Some things befell us well and favorably,
But others hard and ill.
If we should tell of the cold unbearable
That Ida’s snows did bring us;
Or of the heat what time the sea,
All waveless, fell asleep in noon-tide
Slumber, in the windless calm!
But why now grieve at such things?
Our toil is past. Past too for them
That perished, so that no more
Would they have wish to rise again.
Why should the living count the tale
Of dead; why grieve at ills
That chanced now long ago.
For us, the remnant of the Argive host,
Our gain doth conquer; and our woes
Do not bear down the scale
Against what we have won.
So fit it is for us who’ve traveled
Land and sea to boast
In face of this sun’s light:
The Argive host that captured Troy
At last, hath nailed up
In the temples of the gods
Through all Hellas, these spoils,
A glory of old time.

Yes; we have found life a battle not to be escaped; in which the only choice offered us was to “quit ourselves like men,” or skulk as cowards and slackers. We have met misfortune and suffering; and again our only choice, to take what came with patience and courage, or to cower like slaves under the lash. In the contest, now and again, we have had the better — and then again the worse. We trust at least to have played a man’s part, and furnished our foes no cause to scorn us. After all, the combat is the thing and our conduct in it all that really matters.

At the end of our first 50 years of tempest and sunshine, of calm and storm, we have drifted yet once again into the fair haven of alma mater, for the moment. Tomorrow we weigh and sail again — this time toward the sunset. We leave you no Morituri te salutant. We do not feel that way. Life has not exhausted itself or lost its zest. There are yet other shores to visit; perhaps other foes to meet. Some few bolts remain unshot. And not too far ahead lies life’s supreme adventure.

So with an equal mind we bid you not “vale” but XAIPETE! Be glad with all good courage.